Readers who experience a quiet thrill upon discovering an exciting new novel are likely to encounter that sensation when they read Welcome to Lagos, Chibundu Onuzo’s second work of fiction (and her American debut), a fast-paced story of war refugees, militants and others fleeing conflict in modern- day Nigeria.
The book starts when Chike Ameobi, an officer stationed at a “barren army base” in the Niger Delta, deserts rather than participate in a mission he considers barbaric. Accompanying him is Private Yemi Oke, who shares Chike’s distaste for a commanding officer who wants to “string the scalps of his enemies into a belt.”
They begin a journey to Lagos in search of a better life. Along the way, several others join them, including Fineboy, a teenager who had joined the country’s militants to protest foreign countries taking Nigerian oil; 16-year-old Isoken, who is searching for her parents; and Oma, a woman escaping her wealthy husband, an oil industry employee who—as described in one of the novel’s many great lines—treats her like expensive shoes, “to be polished and glossed but, at the end of the day, to be trodden on.”
When they get to Lagos, they live under a bridge along with other impoverished Nigerians until Fineboy discovers an abandoned, furnished flat beneath a decrepit building. They learn that the flat belongs to Colonel Sandayo, Nigeria’s education minister, who is on the run after taking $10 million earmarked for the country’s failing schools.
Welcome to Lagos casts an entertainingly scathing eye on many aspects of Nigerian society, from oil-hungry corporations to ambitious reporters and the rivalries among ethnic groups. If some characters aren’t fully fleshed out, the novel’s breakneck pace and intricate plotting are nevertheless a treat to savor. This is a winning sophomore effort from a writer to watch.
Review by Michael Magras